Hello, this is Wesley J. Smith, and welcome to Human Exceptionalism. Back in 1991, I received an invitation to an unusual party. My elderly friend, Frances, wanted to die. Her plan, she said, was to hold a “life celebration” with her closest friends, where we would hold her hand, kiss her cheek, tell her how much she meant to us as she expressed her own love in return. Afterwards, she would take an overdose of pills and embark upon what she called her “final passage.” Every one of her friends refused. Instead, we held an intervention. “We love you!” we told Frances, “but that doesn’t mean we’ll support you in whatever you decide. We will do everything in our power to you get through the night, but we will not participate in extinguishing your light.”
With zero validation for her suicide, Frances changed her mind. In fact, she soon rebounded from her depression, and for more than a year re-engaged fully in life, even going to court to have her alimony restored—which cheered her mood for months. Eventually, as her health began to worsen, the dark magnet of self-destruction reasserted its deadly attraction. By this time, I had moved from Los Angeles, where Frances lived, to San Francisco.
One night I received a call from her best friend, telling me that she was again threatening suicide. As before, her social circle intervened. With none of her friends in support, she was, not coincidentally, utterly estranged from her son. Frances called my mother to say that “thanks to a divine intervention,” she was no longer planning to take her life. We all breathed a deep sigh of relief, but Frances was lying. On her 76th birthday, she paid a cousin $5,000 to attend her suicide at a hotel.
Frances’ death profoundly affected my life. I later discovered that she was materially influenced by the Hemlock Society’s proselytizing-for-suicide literature that gave readers moral permission to kill themselves, and, more insidiously, taught them how to do it. Outraged, in 1993, I penned my first-ever anti-euthanasia piece in Newsweek Magazine, and I have been committed to fighting the death agenda ever since.
Over those many years of activism, I have noticed a very disturbing trend. In the name of unconditional love, non-judgmentalism, respecting choices, or a belief that killing oneself is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance, some people now accept invitations to suicide gatherings of the kind Frances once wanted and all her friends refused. Indeed, these days, when a case of assisted suicide or euthanasia makes the news, we often learn that the death act was actively supported and attended by family and friends. I call this phenomenon validated suicide.
People who validate suicide think they are doing the right thing, but supporting another’s self-destruction is not a compassionate or morally neutral act. To the contrary: attending a suicide sends an unintentional but insidiously clear message to the suicidal person that, yes, your life is no longer worth living; you are becoming a burden; you are better off dead—and, by the way, your death is best for us, too.
It is not our call or my purpose to judge or condemn people who commit suicide. None of us knows our own limits or breaking point, but I do think we validly criticize those who, whether for benign or malign motives, make it easier or acceptable for a despairing person to plunge into the abyss. Perhaps I am just a moral atavist. As the old song has it, the times, they are a-changing. Once unthinkable acts are not only being legalized, but becoming the norm, even a preferred course. Indeed, evidence by the distinctly positive media and popular responses to Brittany Maynard’s assisted suicide last year, a social expectation seems to be building that family and friends should actively support chosen death, at least in cases involving severe illness or disability.
If I am right, refusing to attend another’s suicide could one day come at the cost of social martyrdom, by which I mean the loss of valued friendships, family estrangement, accusations of cold-hearted moralism, and guilt at being absent when a loved one dies. But we aren’t there yet. Regardless of legality, social non-cooperation with the death agenda could still help hold back the darkly encroaching tide. 25 years ago, refusing to validate Frances’ suicide was the easy choice; not so much today. With California legalizing assisted suicide, more than 10% of us live in states where it is legal. And euthanasia has just been made a charter right in Canada.
That means an increasing number of us may face a time when we are asked to RSVP about attending such a suicide gathering. If you ever receive such an invitation, I hope you will send your unequivocal refusal as—and this is important—you offer to help find a better way forward. That kind of truly compassionate engagement and non-cooperation with the culture of death could come at some risk, but saying no to validated suicide will protect you from moral complicity in a death and could be the act that dissuades your loved one from making a terrible and irrevocable choice.